Kathryn Bemrose’s Birdland

Birdland is the latest exhibition at Yumart. It features the paintings of Kathryn Bemrose. As the name implies its theme is birds, and not necessarily the New York jazz club, which the name might bring to mind. It’s possible, however, to draw a connection between the improvisational quality of jazz and the Quebec-based Automatistes school of abstract painting, who favoured a fluid, stream-of-consciousness approach to their craft.

Installation view. Photo Bob-Morrison

Bemrose, like Les Automatises, wants to channel her unconscious, making it visible in her painting. The school of thought stood in opposition to the rigidity of geometric abstraction. The Automatistes wished to be free of the constraints of deliberation, reason, and structure itself. As they might have said, when inspiration flows in poetry or paint, it doesn’t necessarily leave the pen and brush in the shape of rectangles. The intent was to touch something universal in the liquidity of consciousness. Object, image, and colour may dissolve and meld in the course of navigating thought and motion. Being immersed in the act of painting is a way of being lost and found simultaneously, suspending momentarily, perhaps, the contradictions of life. However, no one is ever free from intention and deliberation. These just get stuffed away somehow. To use a car analogy, the Automatistes drive automatics, the geometric abstractionists standards. With a standard transmission you have to manually shift the gears in straight lines and angles. To Bemrose and the Automatistes, the gear box is hidden, or as they say – it’s automatic and spontaneous.

Installation view

Birdland is a demonstration of the joy of paint. The works are uplifting in their exuberant lavishing of the pigment onto panel and paper. The birds in the Bemrose exhibition flit in and out of camouflage, challenging the eye, at times, to separate plumage from foliage. It’s an unbridled dance between the figure and its descent into the oblivion of abstraction. Secretary Snack displays perfectly this drama of dissolution, where each painterly element is stretched taut – bird, snake, and ground having been arrested, as if by a stopwatch, in a split-second wriggle of painterly unison. 

Secretary Snack, 2019, oil on birch ply, 20” x 16”

Do you ever feel guilty, Doug? is funny in the way that a New Yorker cartoon is funny. If not depicted in paint, the question might have been posed with the opening line: “Two buzzards walk into a bar… “ and so on. Here, in the Bemrose painting, the conversing vultures melt into a background sky, their blue-black wings fusing amorphously into a low-hanging somber cloud. Something ambiguous seems to be taking place at the bird mid-section. Choice cuts of carrion take-away? Bird’s eye x-rays of vulture digestive tracts? It doesn’t matter. The artist has daubed a pair of avian fowl in an improbable twinge of conscience – well one of them at least. We’re not certain that Doug here, has quite managed to pluck up his sense of morality and ethics to the gold standard of humankind.

Do you ever feel guilty, Doug?, 2019, oil on paper, 15″ x 11″

Do U Sing? wafts orchestral-fashion skyward as a fugue. The imagined conductor in the painting might be a peacock, its neck and head having dematerialized and integrated seamlessly with the composition above its plumaged torso. All this contrapuntal stuff happens in the air, where leaf, branch, cloud, and sky, emerge and disappear as bird forms come to view, coalescing and weaving into a melody of pigmented forms. This is a case of Bemrose skirting the figure just enough to hold the image at obeisance, allowing a corner here and a corner there to flow into view in a controlled fashion, as if to remind the viewer, “I use abstracted verse, unlimited in time and interpretation.”

Do U Sing?, 2019, oil on birch ply, 36″ x 30″

Steve Rockwell

Images are courtesy of the artist

*Exhibition information: March 7 – 28, 2020, Yumart, 401 Richmond Street West Suite B20, Toronto. Gallery Hours: Wed – Sat, 12 – 6 pm.


  3 comments for “Kathryn Bemrose’s Birdland

  1. Well that was a really fun review to read! I think Kath has been taking the painting vitamin and has achieved plumage of the Brain. Gorgeous!

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